4.23.2014

you old buzzards, you.


Knowing full well what a cut engine in an unpaved lot at the end of a long car ride portends, Mamie had burst from the back of the car the second I popped open the rear window. Darting into and then immediately back out of the woods, she gave me a distrustful glance as she jogged to the other side of the lot to privately investigate the treasure she had excavated from the moldering leaves.


Following her and having a look myself, I couldn't decide if this skull and its Mamie-detached mandible were good or bad omens.

We were in Buzzards country after all.

Omens or not, dawn had broken, the sun was rising up off the eastern horizon, and all of Stony Valley invited adventuring from its roost just on the other side of Second Mountain at whose base we sat gawking from the valley of Fishing Creek.  It was time to lace up the shoes and get lost (or what felt like lost) for a few hours.

Neither Brian or I have ever run the full Buzzards Marathon course, weren't even sure we knew what trails or sequence of turns made up the course (which is to say, more truthfully, we were sure we didn't know), but we were certain that we were departing from the official, ahem, unofficial starting point of the infamous race that never was.

For those of you who are wondering what the hell I'm talking about, there isn't much I can tell you since the race really doesn't, perhaps never really did, exist.

Or did it?

Hard to say, but if you're curious (as I was and still am), here's a link that will let you draw your own conclusions:  Fact or Fiction? Lore of the Buzzards

As a quick aside, I believe I may have found the man who can tell me all there is to know (or not know), but my instincts suggest he may not give me straight answers, especially if I propose to write a definitive history of this near-mythical non-event.  Musings for another day and a different blog post.


Almost as soon as we stepped from the parking lot, our route began a steady climb of 700 some feet over about a mile and half.  The familiar yellow blazes of the Horse-Shoe Trail welcomed us early in the climb and I was reminded of coming the opposite direction on this same trail a few years ago when I had traveled the first 34+ miles of the trail on a long birthday run.  Going the opposite way and with the passing of even just a few years, I didn't recognize a thing, but that hardly mattered as we fell into a steady rhythm of movement and conversation.  We quickly reached the top of Second Mountain where the early morning sun cast long shadows and Brian and I gestured from one ridge to another, commenting on prior explorations.


Leaving the summit, we began a brisk downhill plunge that followed the straight arrow of an aging pipeline before hanging a sharp right to follow the Horse-Shoe Trail as it descended the ridge in more rolling fashion for the next 3 miles.  I did recognize this section of the trail and, as was the case on my first visit, I couldn't get over how long it seemed to take to cover that distance despite the fact that we were actually chugging along at a pretty healthy pace.

We had noticed fairly fresh bear scat near the top of Second Mountain and when Mamie crouched down into a defensive position and raised hackles I'd never seen her raise before, I was pretty sure we were about to get an up-close look at an Ursus americanus.

I don't possess any inherent fear of Pennsylvania's black bears, but, all the same, encounters remain fairly rare and the possibility of one definitely arouses a little adrenaline.

No such encounter materialized, however, and the at-attention stance of the hackles relaxed, signalling an end of our immediate concerns and allowing the adrenaline to seep away.

Down, down, down we continued before finally crossing the bridge over Stony Creek and then banking left to log a mile or so of rail trail on our way to the Water Tank Trail.

I wrote about the Water Tank Trail less than a month ago and, as it turns out, it isn't any less punishing in broad daylight than it is at night.  It was nice, though, to get on it this time without having first beaten up the legs with miles of self-correcting demanding ice, as was the case back in March, so it actually was a bit more manageable this go round.


Manageable is certainly a relative term and the rocks, downed limbs and steep grade still made for slow going and the rushing water of natural springs and winter run-off made for nice photo ops/chances to slow the pulse along the way.  Brian and Mamie began putting some time on me, but both were kind and patient enough to wait on me every now and then.

Rather than making the entire climb up Stony Mountain on the Water Tank Trail, we took a right-hand turn about a third of the way up the slope, following a trail dubbed Marcia's Madness and its orange blazes the rest of the way up the ridge.  Rumors would have us believe that this was true to the Buzzards course, but who can say?



Together, those two trails took us from the valley floor at roughly 180 feet to 1266 feet on the plateaued top of Stony Mountain in about a mile and a half.  To keep even the finickiest of masochists happy, they also threw in a healthy dose of rocks and roots in case the severity of the slope wasn't enough to render actual running a near impossibility.

Making yet another right hand turn, this time on to the Rattling Run Trail, we settled into one of the few real breaks of the day, a grassy track running north and east across the ridge top for a mile to a mile-and-a-half.

Red blazes to our left announced that we'd reached the H. Knauber Trail, our shortcut down to the Appalachian Trail below on the northern side of Stony Mountain.  No more than 100 yards onto the trail, we crossed paths with a hiker just about to top out on his way up from where we were headed.  The temperatures were maybe in the mid-60's but, despite looking strong and moving solidly (maybe because of this), the guy was sweating like it was a mid-summer 100 degrees with humidity to match.  After we put a little distance between ourselves and the hiker, I made mention of this to Brian and silently felt fortunate that we were going down rather than up.


Suffice to say, every drop of sweat staining that adventurous soul's shirt was hard-earned.  The descent of the H. Knauber Trail was a full-on screamer with big, deep in-cut steps and technical terrain the entire way.  By my Suunto's account, it gave away almost exactly a 1000 feet of elevation in 8 tenths of a mile.  By the time we reached the trail marker at the junction of the A.T., we were 10.5 miles into our day and my quads were well aware of the work we'd already done (and trying to ignore what might be left).  All I could think of was what that other guy had tackled by traveling the opposite direction.

Sheesh.

We swung west (left) on the Appalachian Trail and continued to wind our way down into Clark's Valley, a section with which I was more familiar, having been on that stretch of trail several times before.  Once we reached the bottom of the valley, we peeled away from the A.T. on a blue-blazed, new-to-me trail and began slowly working our way back up the ridge we'd just descended.

The sun continued to inch higher in the sky and the temperatures climbed too, marking the first real warmth of Spring. Our gradual ascending wasn't too taxing but I was beginning to want for calories, actual food to accompany the electrolytes that I had been doing a fairly good job of consuming along the way.  We walked for a bit while I tried to choke down a Snickers but, finding my always cranky stomach to be rather disinterested, I put the half-eaten candy bar away, knocked back a couple of salt tabs, and returned to running.

Soon thereafter, our route, having grown impatient I guess with the slow climbing, turned sharply left and started beelining for the top of Stony.  And, just like that, we were off on another 1000-ish foot climb squished into just over a mile.  Brian machined his way up the ridge with Mamie in tow while I trudged from behind in not-so-hot pursuit.

I may have imagined it, but I believe somewhere along that ascent, a small box was handed to me inside of which I found my own pathetic, beaten, scrawny ass, a humbling gift to receive, I'll have you know.

The top of the mountain did finally arrive, as it always does.  Or, to put it another way, I did finally arrive at the top of the mountain, as I sometimes do.  Even with beaten ass in hand, I was smiling.  My friends were waiting, the surroundings were beautiful, and the weather was absolutely perfect.  None of these things made me not-tired or any more filled with energy, but, all the same, they were there waiting and I was grateful.

We were back on the Rattling Run Trail, this time heading west instead of east but I was no longer cruising along the smooth, grassy double-track.  Not hardly.



I gulped down water, downed another salt tablet, and plugged away (this is an ego-protecting alternative phrase for walking) with knowledge of the long, gravity-promising descent of Rattling Run Road just a mile or two ahead.  That promise pulled me like a tractor beam.  Yep, like a slow, but persistent tractor...sputtering...in first gear...but, still, you know, persisting.

We made far better time on the meandering 3 mile drop that is Rattling Run Road and were rewarded with a view of the two miles of right-straight-up-the-mountain-and-damn-your-switchbacks pipeline that we'd need to cover to top out one last time on Second Mountain.

But not so fast.  The pipeline would disappear from view before we got started.  There was a creek that needed crossing and it was running high, knee-high at some parts, scrotum-high at others.  

Trust me.

Brian made quick work of the crossing, squealing and screeching, perhaps involuntarily from the effects of 50 degree water on vulnerable parts of the anatomy.  Or maybe he just likes to squeal and screech.  Again, who can say?

Mamie had a good long look at the situation and even without the same anatomical concerns as her companions, she still wanted no parts of our fording.  She doesn't mind water actually or mud or any type of questionable footing, but she is resolute in her wanting to be able to touch bottom and Stony Creek wasn't offering that luxury at the moment.


There's nothing quite like hucking a nervous 50-pound dog across a swollen creek on fatigued legs and a queasy stomach while your nuts shrivel up so tight they feel like they might burst.

Trust me.

We made it to the other side and I'm happy to report that Mamie couldn't have been any more dry.  Whew.

And then it was time for that pipeline.  I mean, then it was time for trudging through some of the thickest muck this side of the Everglades and THEN it was time for that pipeline.

Brian cheerfully said something about running up it and off he went.

What?

I watched him and Mamie go.  Watched them for a good 10 seconds.  Then I got down on all fours and vomited.

For real.

Once the spasms passed and I got back on two legs, I looked back the direction they'd gone and they were...um...gone.  Somehow I could see the whole way to the top of the mountain but couldn't see them.  I'd been man-downed for a few minutes, but they weren't that fast, not by that point in the day anyway.  A hundred 100 yards away or half a mile, the point is they were long gone and I needed to start moving that way too.

Surprisingly, my legs weren't completely shot and I was still able to power hike which, while not as effective as running, is a whole lot faster in getting up a climb than walking, sitting or lying prone beside a puddle of your own puke.

Again, trust me.


It took a bit longer than I might have liked, but eventually I reached the intersection where earlier in the day the Horse-Shoe Trail had chosen a different compass setting.

I still had a good bit of ascending left to do, but I was getting there.  I vividly recalled the last time I'd come this direction and how brutal the climb had been from that point to the very top of the ridge.  I also, fortunately, remembered that there is one distinct false summit about 100-150 yards from the true top of Second Mountain.

Moments after mentally patting myself on the back for remembering that fact and avoiding the psychological letdown I might have experienced if I hadn't remembered, I found myself throwing up again.  True to my ridiculous form, it wasn't the kind of puking that produces any output, since my stomach had already been wrung dry.  Instead it was just a bout of spasms, a painful going-through-the-motions until my body accepted the fact that there wasn't anything else to evacuate.

Whether as a defense mechanism or some other character flaw, I always seem to find myself laughing after these episodes.  Perhaps it falls into the "might as well laugh about it" category and as stupid as that sounds as I type this, yes, you might as well.

So, topping out and discovering Brian and Mamie basking in the sun like two trail running pin-ups, I found myself laughing and happy, like always, to be out in the woods, among friends and still in possession of my flawed body and tenacious spirit.

"It's all downhill from here" is a dreaded cliche in ultrarunning, almost never true, but in this case it really was.  Less than 2 miles later, we were back in the parking lot, reflecting on the preceding hours.

Mamie humored me, as she always generously does, posing for an archival photo of the day's journey.


While I don't always bother to summon all the powers of my GPS, I decided to see what its charts had to report on our wandering and learned that we'd put in nearly 4400 feet of climbing and almost 21 miles.  My legs, like their owner, aren't very good at math, but they definitely concurred that work had been done.



Seems a full-blown Buzzards might have added my sun-bleached bones to those that Mamie had scrounged up earlier in the day.

Only one way to find out.

I can't wait.

4.15.2014

my goodness.


With so many snippets of news and not-news whizzing by at breakneck speed and in all directions, I have no idea why we click on the links that we do.

Or don't.

Or whatever.

Sometimes the impetus is obvious, the mention of a person or feat of particular interest, a stunning image from an uber-exotic locale or a headline posing as fact simply too funny/stupid/unbelievable/sad to possibly be true.  It could be the potential of a rare performance of a favorite song by a beloved or forgotten band or the revisiting of a memorable movie scene that left you breathless on first watch and promises a repeat performance.

For me, it is often the voyeuristic lure of seeing better-runners-than-I racing through lush forests, over mountain passes or along desolate desert trails.

Other clips invite viewing for reasons less explicable, and while some turn out so disappointing as to beg an answer why they were clicked in the first place, there are others that prove more than just reward for the visit.

Like this one:


A friend shared this clip on Facebook this past Saturday and while I scrolled right past numerous other posts, there was something about this one that made me stop, press the play button and watch...raptly.

The ten minutes of wonder seem almost too perfect and may well have been scripted and directed.  I choose to think not and will make no effort to learn otherwise.  Even if someone was to spoil the fantasy by confirming that these two ladies were just actors in a modern ode to joy, my reaction shall remain the same.

What does it have do with running?  Not a damn thing and who cares?

I could contrive a connection, pointing out how the tale overlaps with the venturing into the unknown of trail running, the bonds formed by two strangers sharing a common challenging experience, and the tearful release of completing a race you weren't sure you were capable of finishing.

I could, but I won't.

Fiction or non, the story of An and Ria moved me by reminding me again how much we take life for granted, how blindly and brazenly we muscle past the subtle wonders of the world to get to the next bullet point on our hourly/daily/weekly agenda.

We're all so bored, depressed, stressed, angry, disappointed, empty, bored (did I already say that?), over it, anxious, longing, demanding...entitled to whatever it is we don't yet and may never have.

We've been there.  We know.  We've already seen that, heard that, tasted that.

What else you got?

We.  Want.  More.

Dammit.

But we HAVE so much and have for as long as we can possibly remember (if we even bother trying) and we've never really bothered to be happy or thankful for that.  We say we are...like clockwork...near the end of each November, just before we lay on the f#@#ing horn because some jackass had the nerve to "steal" the parking spot two whole spots closer than the one we had to settle for in the parking lot outside of CollossalRetaileroftheMoment a few minutes before the stroke of get-it-before-they-do midnight.


And I'm no different.

I want too.

I want to laugh like Ria on that roller coaster.

Deeply and genuinely.

I want to fly again for the first time and feel the excitement, the worry, the anticipation.  I want to look out the window and whisper "my goodness."  I want to gaze down through the clouds, wordlessly, and think "how can this possibly be?"

I want to topple over in the surf and get a wet bum.

And I want to acknowledge every second of the adventure as gift given and appreciatively received.

Wanting the same for my daughters, I sat them down beside me and we tagged along as An and Ria took off, laughed, became fast friends, and together explored the new world of Barcelona.

Lily and Piper Bea watched hushed, bright-eyed and fascinated while I thought of my good fortune to one day see them take their own first flights.

"My, oh my, oh my!"

Indeed.

3.26.2014

every leaf a miracle.


To state the obvious, I really love the outdoors.

I also greatly adore the act of running and the benefit, in moving faster, of getting to see more of the beloved outdoors in a days time than would be possible at a slower pace.  Not that I don't enjoy hiking, walking or even just sitting beneath a canopy of open sky.  I do, but, it is while travelling more swiftly that I find my greatest solitary joy.  A perfect blending of the release that is physical exertion and the inspiring exhibition of natural, remote settings, trail running makes me infinitely more capable of filtering out those things that might normally distract me from a full appreciation of how miraculous life can be.

Between science and all its explanations, the facts and figures that dwell within the phones and computers that have become appendages of our everyday, a globe that acknowledges having been explored, mapped and demystified, it has become all too easy to shrug off the miracles.

But they do exist.  Not just out on the trails, but everywhere.

I know it in my heart and all five of my senses confirm their existence if I heed the data those senses collect.

Feebly, I am unable to prove it or convey it to others.

Walt Whitman, the grand old poet who died on this very day back in 1892, was not so feeble.


As a teenager, I can remember reading his works and trying to fathom the scope and grandeur they evoked.  I couldn't.  Filled with flourishes and exclamations, his poetry refused to NOT acknowledge the wonder in all things, physical, spiritual, natural or man-made.

He praised action, physicality, movement, mountains, prairies, forests and oceans, but, within capacious musings, he cast light not just on athletic feats or the most fetching landscapes, but also upon the seemingly mundane, the otherwise shadowed or overlooked.

All things.

So on this day, in remembrance of an icon's passing but even more so in honor of his having lived and done so on such a grand, celebratory scale, I set my own sights on becoming ever more receptive to the joy of all things.

Rest well, Walt, and thank you for the prompting that ever leaf, every blade of grass is indeed a miracle.


Miracles

WHY! who makes much of a miracle?
As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach, just in the edge of the
water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love--or sleep in the bed at night with
any one I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with my mother,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive, of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds--or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sun-down--or of stars shining so quiet
and bright,
Or the exquisite, delicate, thin curve of the new moon in spring;
Or whether I go among those I like best, and that like me best--
mechanics, boatmen, farmers,
Or among the savans--or to the soiree--or to the opera,
Or stand a long while looking at the movements of machinery,
Or behold children at their sports,
Or the admirable sight of the perfect old man, or the perfect old
woman,
Or the sick in hospitals, or the dead carried to burial,
Or my own eyes and figure in the glass;
These, with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring--yet each distinct, and in its place.

To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the
same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same;
Every spear of grass--the frames, limbs, organs, of men and women,
and all that concerns them,
All these to me are unspeakably perfect miracles.

To me the sea is a continual miracle;
The fishes that swim--the rocks--the motion of the waves--the ships,
with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there? 

3.23.2014

tuscaroaring 20's.


I woke up in the pitch black of early (long-before-bright) morning and wondered why.  My alarm hadn't gone off and there didn't appear to be any other sound or movement to explain my rousing.

Recognizing an alertness that made it unlikely I'd be able to fill the next hour with anything resembling sleep, I thought instead of the many friends running big loops around Antelope Island out in the middle of the Great Salt Lake and the numerous other pals soon to be lining up for the HAT 50k in Maryland.  I silently wished all of them well, sad to not be at the Buffalo Run (one of my favorite events) and happy not to be headed back to HAT (with apologies, not one of my favorites).

Frankly, I didn't have any business visualizing myself at the start of an ultra, not with a winter of too little running just finally getting around to wrapping up.  Don't get me wrong, I have logged a lot of miles over the last few months, but those could definitely be better defined as hiking than as running.

That said, I did have "race" plans for the day, at least on the surface.

Seasoned ultrarunner Don Halke would be directing the Tuscarora Trails Ultra 50K, a "fat ass" event (for the uninitiated, this just means that there weren't any race fees and, in this case, the aid station food was actually donated by those of us who were also running) being held in western Perry County, PA and I was very much looking forward to seeing all of his hard work come to fruition in a part of the state with which I was unfamiliar but excited to be introduced.  The weather report called for rain early but hinted at spring-like temperatures in the afternoon, certainly sounding like the right day to see some friendly faces, make some new connections and broaden my exposure to Pennsylvania trails.

I tiptoed around the house hoping not to rouse Sugar Pie who had finally fallen asleep a few hours earlier, nursing a grudge after watching me pack a bag and then not taking her out for a moonlit run.


Slipping guiltily from the house and steering the car as quietly as possible out of the driveway, I crossed fingers that the sun would begin to peek over the eastern horizon in time to illuminate the new-to-me topography waiting beyond the west shore of the Susquehanna River.  As Cumberland County handed me off to Perry County just before I reached Sherman's Dale, that wish came true.

The landscape consisted of forested ravines, runoff-fed creeks, rolling hillsides and farmland opportunistically tilled wherever the land was level enough to merit the effort.  There were aging Appalachian ridge lines in all directions and I wondered which one (or two) would play host to the race.  A glance at the map informed me that that destination was probably not yet in view.

Just a few minutes ahead of the advertised 8:00 AM start time, I turned the car into the parking lot of the Big Spring State Park picnic area assured by the collection of vehicles sporting oval numeric-bearing bumper stickers that it was the right place.

With little time to spare, I laced up my shoes and hustled over toward a pavilion and saw Don uttering final instructions from his bed of a pick-up truck perch.  He was briefing those gathered there of changes to the course and some turns that required special attention (I'm guessing), information that likely would have been helpful had I not been busy saying hellos to Cassie, Rik, Zach, Stacey and three exquisite cattle dogs and also exchanging first-time greetings with Jennifer and Todd who were quick to warmly introduce themselves.

Moments later, we were on the move, picking our footfalls over the rock strewn Iron Horse Trail.



Rik, Zach and I played how-have-you-been?, chattering on and on about all the on-trail standards, the weather, dogs and vasectomies (I think that's what that was about).  I honestly don't recall many specifics from those first few miles, except an overall feeling of contentment, sharing miles with good people, soaking up the beauty of the Tuscarora State Forest, and basking in the warmth of the return of the prodigal sun.

Whatever pace we were moving at certainly seemed sustainable and, if anything, on the conservative side, but it was early and all three of us had reasons why were short on base mileage and not in a position to push our hardest.  I can't speak for the two of them, but that thought never even entered my mind or tempted my legs.

It wouldn't have mattered much anyway because soon after passing through Fowler's Hollow we encountered a steep, rocky grade that would have throttled any attempt at running.


After a minute or two of trepidation at a crossroads where we saw a runner vanish down one trail while the one behind us confidently chose another, we determined that the "high" road was the proper route and we began the long, slow grind to the top of the ridge.


Even this exposed slog was enjoyable with the good company, the views of the valley below and the sunlight that reminded us that the predicted rain never had materialized.

An unnamed recovering clear-cut at the top of the north side of the ridge granted a sweeping multi-directional vista that had me wishing for a panoramic camera.


It was downhill from there and our legs started churning again.  At the bottom of the descent, we returned to the aid station that we had passed through just 3 miles into the day and it was there that Zach and I said goodbyes to Rik and Stacey who had been waiting there for our arrival.  The two of them are patiently rehabilitating injuries and, as much as I hated to see Rik go, I was glad that he was being intelligent (a notably rare quality amongst ultrarunners) and putting himself in good position to better tackle goal races later in the year.  It goes without saying (which you only ever say just before NOT going without saying), that I look forward to spending more trail time with them soon.

By the time Zach and I got around to leaving the aid station, we had been joined by Cassie and Elena (I hope I got that right and apologize if I haven't) and we headed off toward the road crossing on our way up Conococheague Mountain.

And I do mean "up".

The old fire road we followed seemed to go on forever and the grade and the terrain underfoot were reminiscent of the many grinding uphills at my beloved TransRockies.  As with those climbs, the ascent promised to top out eventually and bring with it the relief of ridgetop running. at least for a couple of miles.

My continuing conversation with Zach and the want to not stop moving forward until the top kept me plugging away but I was fully gassed at the summit and knew I needed some calories.  Cassie and Elena, who had been right on our heels the entire climb, topped out moments later and the four of us caught our breath and regrouped.  A few other folks arrived while we waited and soon everyone moved off down the trail while I finished peeling off one of the now unneccessary layers of clothing I'd been wearing and getting my pack back in place.  I peeked ahead at the smooth double-track ahead and made up my mind to pick up my feet and fall back in with the pack.

At that same instant, a cramp rolled across the inside of my left thigh and confirmed that I was even further behind on calories and hydration that I had suspected.  Continuing to sip at the water I was carrying, I decided to just go easy for a little while and then see if I could push a little to catch up.

It was a disappointing stretch of the course to not be able to run but, being that it was also a really beautiful setting for hiking, it was impossible to NOT enjoy myself.  Several minutes later, my cramping had quieted down enough for me to begin moving along again at faster-than-a-walk pace and the next aid station soon came into view, manned by a single individual, a spirited gentleman who wouldn't let me talk him out of talking me into eating a peanut butter sandwich.  My stomach wasn't terribly interested, but it was advice well taken and I thanked him (and thank him again) before going on my way just as another runner arrived and drew the full attention of my good Samaritan.

A little further along I came upon a fork in the road that seemed to merit flagging or some sort of indication as to which direction I should turn.  Nothing.  I honestly couldn't remember the last time that I'd seen a trail marker, but the route had been so obvious up until that point that this didn't seem all that odd.

As I pondered the predicament, a curious sign caught my attention.


I have no idea who put that up and what greater story lies behind the sign's existence but it was another of those curious intersections of wilderness and civilization that intrigues me so.

Not that it did anything to solve the riddle of where I was supposed to go next.

I tried to reach back into my memory and reform the words that Don had served up a few hours before into some sort of answer but it was useless.

Or was it?

I did vaguely recall something about a turns sheet and that recollection led to another.  That very turns sheet was neatly folded and tucked into the pocket on the harness of my pack.  Too bad that wouldn't be of any use in a situation like this. 

Idiot.

Unfolding the sheet, I quickly had my answer and turned on my heels to head back the way I had just come.


Retracing "about .6 miles too far", I returned all the way to the aid station, stepping over the giant "NO" that I'd apparently ignored on the way out the first time.  Lifting my head this time, I couldn't help but notice the obvious turn off for the Shope Trail.  Turns out the peanut-butter sandwich-peddling volunteer, having noticed after a few seconds that I was going the wrong way, had called out for me to stop, but those shouts had been ushered away by the warm winds blowing across the top of the ridge.

At least the unexpected out-and-back gave me a chance to let him know that the sandwich had done the trick and the pep that had been restored to my legs allowed me to barrel down the steep slope in a way that wouldn't have been possible if I hadn't missed the turn in the first place.

I passed by a few runners before reaching Bryner Road and I headed off down that semi-maintained road on what I knew was a hopeless chase to catch up with Zach and Cassie.

Within a few hundred yards I came upon Jennifer and Todd and decided (correctly) that their's was ideal company for the next few miles.  We spent that time getting to know each other and played "small world" with shared stories of our interactions with Kelly Agnew (way to butt in on yet another story, Kelly).

At some point, I decided that I needed to take advantage of the life my legs still seemed to have in them and I offered a "see you in a little while" and pushed out ahead.  I crossed an unpaved road, picked up the trail on the other side and began switchbacking up the short, steep ridge ahead.  Up near the top, I heard a "STOP!" and, after my experience back on Conococheague, I froze in place.  Looking back down the slope, I saw a runner or two heading down the road that I had crossed over and wondered if I was again off course.  I waited for another response or an indication of whether it was I should be stopping or if it was someone else being called back to the trail I had taken.  Unsure, I worked my way back down the switchbacks to the road and got there just in time to discover that I had been on the right track in the first place.

Back up the hill we went, by then joined by Bryan and his two female companions (whose names I lamely forgot to ask) whom I had passed on the descent of Shope Trail.  I learned that he was fairly new to long distance running but would be tackling his first 50 miler, the Bull Run Run, later this spring (he'll do great).  I was enjoying our conversation but needing to keep moving while I still felt strong, I left him behind as he waited for the rest of his trio.  Thankfully, I hadn't gotten too far ahead, giving him the chance to yell out notice that I had strayed off course yet again, having chosen some other direction over the obvious straight-ahead path that was the correct way.

Whether for reasons physical or psychological, it was about this point that my second peanut-butter fueled wind died down and fatigue set in.  I had already surpassed my longest run of the year by a couple of miles, was uncertain of how much extra mileage I had already added or might add before reaching the finish, and didn't feel inclined to let my great day in the woods spiral down into a suffer-to-the-end death march.

Arriving for the third time to the aid station at the intersection of the Iron Horse Trail, I decided to take the less-than-3 mile bail out to an early finish.  Navigating the rocks on that return leg corroborated my theory that the short-on-actual-running training of the prior months had left my legs a bit weak on sustained speed.  Rather than try to vainly blow holes in that theory, I stuck to hiking the rest of the way, taking in the beautiful scenery all around me rather than having to stare at the ground two feet in front of me.  I hit the finish line at an abbreviated 23.7 miles, smiling and feeling good, especially after a system-shocking dip in the creek.


I hadn't put in 50 kilometers but I'm not sure I expected to in the first place.  I'd had a roaring good time covering my 20-and-change miles.  As promised, Don had served up one of his "running adventures" and I wasn't inclined to ask for my money back.  In fact, weighed on a dollars-per-mile scale, the Tuscarora Trails Ultra 50k can hold its own against any race out there.

3.20.2014

out of doors.


As promised, Brian and Eric were waiting for me (and Sugar Pie) at the Dauphin Boro/Stony Creek exit off of 322.  The sun hadn't been below the horizon for all that long, but the darkness after we passed through the town of Dauphin and proceeded into the valley between Second and Stony Mountains had the deep quality of a much later hour.

The road we followed would only remain paved for a few miles before transitioning to dirt pocked and grooved from an unforgiving winter and a lack of maintenance.  Neither the dark nor the broken track fazed us much and it surely didn't dissuade the sizable black bear that rose up in the glow of our headlights from continuing on its search for easy-to-be-had scraps in the trash cans that accompanied the few houses colonizing the western end of State Game Lands #211.  Suge seemed to sense the bear's presence without actually casting eyes upon it, perhaps having caught its scent through the window I had cracked to let the night air creep in to acclimate us to the cold.

After weeks, months, seemingly years of winter, the day had actually been surprisingly moderate, but relatively clear skies had let the fleeting warmth escape back into the atmosphere.  Having reached the end of the road, the closed gate that marks the start of the Stony Valley Rail-Trail, a recreational re-purposing of the long abandoned Schuylkill and Susquehanna Railroad line, we stepped out into temperatures hovering right around the freezing mark.  Cold, yes, but, without the determined wind that had seethed most of the preceding week, it was brisk without being bracing.

Rattling Run Road in the light of day - Photo courtesy of John A Kilmer
Rather than progressing along the remote but flat rail trail, we were headed up, up, up along the Rattling Run Trail which begins as a smooth, runnable (but not without work) uphill grade until nearing the top of Stony Mountain and bending off to the north east and rolling across the top of the ridge for several miles.

I'd run with Brian and a few other friends the weekend before and it had been one of those days that my body just didn't have any interest in cooperating.  This night felt very different and it was a joy to run steadily along, gaining ground all the way while, as is always my want, laughing and chattering the entire time.  My legs felt much more responsive after the relatively low key week of running and climbing that had followed the aforementioned disheartening performance.

It wasn't until we topped out and transitioned from the broader jeep road to gone-to-wild double track that we encountered snow, ice and the muck that lurked beneath the two.  Though it slowed our progress...what, oh...right, it didn't slow Sugar Pie's progress in the slightest...anyway, though it slowed our progress, the messy conditions didn't dampen our spirits as the relative stillness and the moonglow off of the snow added to the captivating beauty of the night we'd wandered into.



We passed various trail intersections and tried to piece together the topography from differing memories of past visits to paths in the valley that may or may not have overlapped with one another. I don't think we actually drew any solid conclusions and our mental maps remained full of question marks.

The footing became a bit more treacherous as the trail headed downward and the terrain, more sheltered from the sun than what we'd already encountered, stubbornly clung to a blanket of polished ice.  Our slipping and sliding eventually delivered us to the place where the Horseshoe Trail collides with (or departs from, depending on the direction you are traveling) the Rattling Run Trail.


This intersection lies just below the Devil's Race Ground, a long boulder field that shelters the headwaters of Rattling Run beneath it.  You can literally hear the rushing of the invisible river under your feet but are unable to catch a glimpse of the water itself despite endless cracks and openings between the pile up of thousands of tons of rock.  I attempted to capture an audio recording of the stirring music, a music that early settlers feared was emitted from the devil himself, but, I did so in vain.

Sugar Pie whined her plea to move, move, MOVE along and we fell in line behind her as she led us down the shared route of the Horseshoe and Rattling Run Trails as they descended to the rail trail that had paralleled the course we'd traveled.  Along the way, we passed the cool old historical marker I hadn't seen since running the first (or last) 34 miles of the Horseshoe Trail on my birthday two-and-a-half years earlier.


My imagination likes to picture the hearty individuals who stood there on that October day back in 1934 being the very "interested" people who still returned each year to pay tribute.  It's a cruel math that makes that improbable and so my leaning-to-the-left brain did what it tends to do and left the arithmetic undone.

A 90-degree turn had us reoriented to the southwest.  Persistent tree cover, a resting point in the shadow of Second Mountain, and the ever present moisture of Stony Creek just a few yards away made the rail trail a rather nasty sheet of unsure footing that required a subtle but constant focus and consistent, tiring auto correcting to remain upright.  I don't believe any of us took a legitimate fall but the threat was persistent and our pace definitely suffered, making the 2-3 mile straight line feel like twice that.

Our only diversion was a quick visit to the creek itself at the point where the Horseshoe Trail breaks ways with the rail trail and crosses water to begin its climb up Second Mountain.  We gave Sugar Pie time to hydrate while we enjoyed a momentary respite from skating.


That break didn't last long, as another round of whimpering signaled that we had dallied long enough and it was time to get back to work.



We had another mile to go before we could put the rail trail behind us once and for all.  Not that doing so meant any relief, as our escape route was the Water Tank Trail, a relatively short pitch of mangled singletrack that mirrors the route of an old lumber incline that had one intention which was to get from the top of the ridge to the valley below as directly as possible.  Switchbacks are nowhere to be found.  Rocks, roots, downed limbs and runoff gouges are prevalent and the sustained grade is not even remotely runnable.  Hell, it's barely hikeable. On the bright side of things, it was free of ice and snow.  Had it not been, it may very well have been completely impassible.  Regardless, it was a punishing climb and I felt the first tinges of leg cramps well before the top and wondered how much more climbing we'd need to do and how interesting things would get if the severity of the cramps progressed.  I knocked back a couple of salt tabs, knowing full well that it was too little too late.

As is always the case (I always tell myself to remember this, but sometimes it's harder than other times), the grade did finally relax, announcing our arrival at the top of the ridge.  A sharp left returned us to the Rattling Ridge Trail we'd been on an hour or two earlier and we began again to navigate the mixed bag of snow, ice and mud.

Brian, having vowed to take things easy ahead of the Terrapin Mountain 50K a week later, was not taking things easy, at least not comparative to Eric and me.  I kid, but, well, no not really.  Thankfully, his cool badass-meets-kind-heart personality convinced him to check in with us now and again as we crept across the ridge.  I chased the salt tabs with the last of the water I was carrying and throttled back from running to hiking whenever the cramps threatened to intensify.

Our little group reassembled at the western edge of the ridge and together we tackled the downhill plunge to the parked cars waiting below.

We had covered 16.5+ miles and those 4 hours had passed by in what in hindsight felt like half that EVEN with the slogging that had happened on the rail trail and the Water Tank.


That disconnect from the clock is one of my favorite magical aspects of running "out of doors" at night.  The minutes pass imperceptibly when there aren't any pending appointments, shift starts/ends, or television show airings that demand to be adhered.

With my fitness not yet where it will be after months and miles of glorified hiking but little real running, I was definitely fatigued and happy to be done, but my mind was already plotting a return to Stony Valley and further exploration of its network of trails.  After a long drive home and a couple hours of sleep, that hadn't changed one bit and I decided to do a little multitasking at breakfast.